Golden perspective: U.S. Paralympian on the power of sports
By Greg Bach
Stephanie Wheeler loved playing sports as a young child.
And while a car accident left her a paraplegic at the age of 6 her passion for competing never wavered.
“Sports were absolutely huge in my life,” she says. “I did gymnastics and t-ball so from a very early age I was into sports, but after my accident I didn’t know anything about disability sports. So for about the next six years I was aching and longing to be able to do something physical and figure out some way to play sports. When I found wheelchair basketball when I was 12 years old it completely changed my life. It was absolutely huge to me as a child.”
Talented, motivated and hardworking, she excelled at the sport. She eventually made her way onto the U.S. national team and was a key performer in helping the Red, White and Blue win gold at the Paralympic Games in Athens in ’04 and Beijing in ’08.
Now she’s the head coach of the U.S. women’s national wheelchair basketball team looking to strike gold again at the Paralympic Games currently taking place in Rio.
The U.S. navigated pool play undefeated with wins over France, Algeria and the Netherlands. It takes the court in quarterfinal action this evening against host Brazil.
Wheeler is passionate about learning. She was that way as a player; and the same goes for her approach to coaching.
“I did something every single day to make myself the best athlete I could possibly be,” Wheeler says. “Even once I made the national team I failed a lot on court. I think having to work through those things and having to understand that this is how you turn it into something positive and this is how to be resilient and bounce back. I use that every single day at my job. I don’t get things right all the time as a coach, but I’m dedicated to life-long learning and doing something every single day to make myself a better coach.”
Learning, growing and being resilient – that’s a great message for volunteer coaches to grab onto as they work with their young athletes.
When asked what her favorite youth sports memory is, two quickly popped to mind.
“When I was in kindergarten, just before I was injured, I won all the field day events and I remember that so vividly,” she says. “I remember how awesome it felt to be physical and to compete and I think that’s where my competitive spirit kind of started coming out.”
And the second is incredibly powerful for the impact it had on the rest of her life.
“The first time I got to compete playing wheelchair basketball where I went to that first practice where I just had all these amazing feelings that this is what I am supposed to do,” she said. “I loved the sport and being competitive and it felt amazing that I wasn’t seen as the kid with the disability – I was included in a group and I could get all that competitiveness out.”
Stephanie Wheeler’s journey is a powerful reminder of how valuable sports are in the lives of all kids.
And every child, regardless of disabilities, needs opportunities to play them.
Every. Single. Child.
“The first time being able to go practice with my team was just amazingly life changing,” Wheeler says.
That’s the power of sports.
And every child deserves the chance to experience it.
Jamie Clarke has climbed the tallest mountain on every continent and worked with elite athletes on the mental side of the game. Use his insights to elevate your leadership skills and take your young athletes on a journey they'll never forget
3-time Olympian Allison Baver overcame gruesome injuries throughout her career to excel on the world stage. Use her insight to help young athletes overcome fears lurking in their minds
Team USA’s Kendall Coyne cherished her childhood where her parents didn’t pressure and push. The result? Her love for hockey flourished, and is as strong as ever these days
Curt Tomasevicz, Olympic champion in the four-man bobsled and former football player at Nebraska, on helping young athletes conquer fears, stay focused, and perform at their best when the pressure rises